Field Trip: Tree & Twig Heirloom Vegetable Farm

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Linda starts all of her seeds indoors under grow lights. Here are some new pepper sprouts.

We're getting very excited for spring. If we're going to stay out of the grocery store this summer, this coming weekend will make it or break it, since it's when we're going to be starting all of our vegetable seeds. So to inspire us and to look for a bit of advice we decided to visit someone who has some experience in the field.

 Actually, Linda Crago has more than just some experience. This year she's already started more than 10,000 tomato plants, and will be transplanting them all in the next few weeks. By hand. And that's not even including all the other vegetables she grows. Where most farms are hundreds of acres of one variety, her nine acres is home to more than a thousand varieties of vegetables.

Linda's farm is not just vegetables. Mama Duck and Joey, a Vietnamese pot belly pig are inseparable.

Linda has been specializing in tomatoes and more specifically, heirlooms for the past 14 years. She's a part of the movement to save seeds from vegetables that are close to being lost. She plays an important role in keeping our food system interesting, diverse, and open-sourced. I know first hand what makes some of these tomatoes special. Last year was the first year that we successfully grew some heirloom varieties (the two previous years were notoriously bad for tomatoes) and the taste from the Black Krim that we grew was certainly eye-opening.

Some of the vegetable varieties that Linda grows can't be found anywhere else in the world. She has searched for some of them in seed catalogues, but can't find them anywhere but in her field. That must be an incredible and inspiring feeling.

Linda's seedlings are mostly in her basement at the moment. Those ten thousand tomato plants are ten thousand seedlings slowly growing under racks filled with grow-lights, waiting to be transplanted and moved out into the greenhouse as the weather improves. Every year on the Victoria Day weekend she holds her annual Tomato Days where she sells a lot of her plants. She then plants about 1,500 in her field and sells a few thousand to nurseries. The rest are donated to the community for gardens and any other projects that could use them.

Linda grows greens right through the winter in her greenhouse for local restaurants.
They freeze nightly but spring to life the moment the sun comes out.   

The tomatoes and other vegetables that she grows are sold at the farm gate on Saturday mornings, or any other day if you call ahead. It's a short walk to the field if what you're looking for is not out front. She also sells a lot of vegetables to local restaurants including some winter greens that are still growing in her greenhouse.

Linda's farm is a testament to how productive a relatively small farm can be, using no chemicals and little more than our great-grandparents had to work with.

If you're anxious to start a garden from seed, you can buy seed directly from Linda. It's usually either seed she's sourced, or saved from her own produce. You could also visit her during her Tomato Days. Visit her site for more info and keep up-to-date with her blog. For those interested in starting tomatoes and other veg from seed, she's just written an amazing post which is all you'll ever need to know. I can't wait to visit her in the summer and photograph all the amazing varieties of tomatoes. Until then I'll just have to keep looking at her blog.

Tree & Twig Heirloom Vegetables
74038 Regional Road
45 Wellandport, Ontario
(905) 386-7388
Twitter: @treeandtwig

Sugar Bush: The Motion Picture

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

I finally got around to editing and fixing up the video from our visit to the sugar bush last week. It's pretty uneventful, but I hope you enjoy a little moment in the woods regardless.

This was supposed to complement this post, but I ran out of time. I'm only one man.


Field Trip: Sugar Bush

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Since our very first Field Trip, I've been looking forward to this excursion. I have fond childhood memories of the trip out to the sugar bush. The best part was always the maple syrup taffy. Pouring it on the snow and rolling it up onto a popsicle stick. It was always the first sign of spring and the main event that brought everyone out of their winter hibernation.

Maple syrup is a staple in our household. It is one of our natural and local sweeteners and replaces the sugar in many of my recipes. But once you see the work that goes into making maple syrup you are more likely to savour every drop of this liquid gold.

The Austin family are friends of ours, and they started tapping the maples in their neighbour's forest last year. Starting out with 30 trees and a very resourceful, back-to-basics set-up, they got their feet wet in maple syrup. Figuratively. Even though last year wasn't the best for syrup, it couldn't have been that bad because they are back at it again, and at a much larger scale.

The sugar shack was built by their neighbour's late husband. She graciously allows the Austins to continue an amazing tradition and tap the maples. This year they have around 75 trees tapped, and even though the sap wasn't running fast this weekend, Wayne said there have been days when the pails are filled and overflowing in just a few hours.

Jesse's dad gave Wayne a salvaged stainless-steel drip pan from an old canning factory that closed down years ago in Simcoe, Ontario. Wayne uses it as a big boiler that really distributes the evaporation. It's held in place by a mixture of some old steel posts and scrap metal from a nearby abandoned railroad spur.

Wayne, Charlene and their son Josh head out to their sugar bush around 8 in the morning and spend the day back there stoking the fire and boiling down the sap until about 5. It's incredible to see the amount of sap that Wayne seems to be continually adding. In a given day they will boil around 100 gallons of sap. Once it's about 90% done, they finish it on a more controlled propane burner and boil it down to the final 2 gallons.

Maple syrup's 40:1 boiling ratio is pretty incredible and labour-intensive. I used to feel that maple syrup was a bit expensive, but next time I pick some up, I'm going to feel like I'm greatly underpaying.

Check out this site to find farm gate maple syrup, a pancake house or a maple syrup festival near you before the season ends.

Fieldnotes: Garlic Sightings

Monday, March 21, 2011

As unpredictable as the weather's been, it's been hard to fully commit to the feeling that spring is coming. Waking up to snow saturday morning was a bit of setback, even if it didn't stick around. But then there are the sure signs of spring. The fact that you're hard pressed to find a patch of leftover snow, the sound of robins, and daylight lasting until well after seven.

The other sign is our garlic sprouting. We've never grown it before, and some would say we planted an overly ambitious amount, but regardless, we're happy to see that most of it is up.

We're growing about 8 different varieties (variety is a common theme in this year's garden as we figure out what works best for us). We planted Music, which is a standard variety and it's all up. We also planted a global selection we sourced from Daniel Hoffman at The Cutting Veg. We have Ukrainian, Sicilian, Russian, (former) Yugoslavian, among others and the only variety left to show itself is the Tibetian, which I imagined would have sprouted first.

I can't wait to see what works best, and look forward to finding ways to use our first official crop. We'll be setting a good portion of it aside for next year's seed, but we're also looking for plenty of different preservation techniques to try so we don't have to eat it all right away.

Take a look back at the process. Here's a link to all the garlic we planted and another to our afternoon of planting.

DIY Greenhouse

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

We finally did it. We built a greenhouse. Goodbye front porch jungle and hello big garden. I'm sure I'll miss the greenery in the porch a little bit, but knowing that we'll have a much larger quantity will feel good. We're still going to germinate our vegetable seeds in the house, but once they're on their way, they'll have a dedicated home until they go in the field my parents have set aside for us.

I still remember the wall of heat, humidity and smell when I would open the door of the greenhouse at my grandparents'. I'd run up and down the narrow aisle between thousands of tomato and pepper plants. Baba would spend her days there prepping, seeding and transplanting each plant by hand. She did this year after year with seed saved from the last year's crop. I wish I had paid more attention, and I really wish she was still around for advice.

When my grandparents sold the farm, my dad kept the cedar from that greenhouse and leftover UV resistant plastic from another. Cedar is amazing. Even though it had been left outside for years, its rot-resistance made it more than adequate for our project. The only new material we used was four sheets of eight-dollar OSB (chipboard) to give the structure a bit of rigidity.

Now I know that we're incredibly blessed to have access to the land, tools, salvaged wood, plastic and especially a lift truck to move it into place, but it doesn't have to be as involved as what we've done here. Your greenhouse might be as simple as a cold-frame made from a salvaged window pane that adds a couple weeks onto the growing season of a small section of garden. Or it could be as elaborate as a full-size hoophouse that a tractor can pass through.

Our favourite gardening reference book, the Canadian Encyclopedia of Gardening, has an entire section dedicated to greenhouses and cold frames. I've been studying it quite a bit to figure out exactly what I have to do to make sure that my seedlings don't freeze. I've picked up a min/max thermometer so I can see what the temperature range is and I'm also doing some research into "heat banks". I'm thinking of putting some dark, water-filled barrels under the counter to warm up during the heat of the day and slowly release their heat at night to soften the sudden swings in temperature.

What first turned me on to the idea of building my own greenhouse is this site. He built his "$50 greenhouse" for a little under $150 when all was accounted for, with supplies you can get at any hardware store, and he has since provided plenty of updates and advice on what he would have done differently. There are plenty of online greenhouse resources. A quick Google or YouTube search of "DIY greenhouse" will give you more ideas than you need.

We still need to figure out how exactly to use this new thing we've created, but we're doing a lot of studying, and we're going to be visiting a few people for advice. If you have stories or advice, we'd love to hear from you.


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

It's amazing how making more at home really opens your eyes to the wonders of nature. The western world has a huge obsession with cleanliness, refrigeration, and getting rid of bacteria, so when you start playing with recipes that tell you to leave milk on the counter overnight to let bacteria flourish, it feels a little odd.

We had been buying lots of plain yogurt, Jesse has always loved its tartness and it's something I'm getting used to with the help of some added berries. The kids haven't really had anything but plain yogurt, and if they've had the sugar-filled kind, I'm sure they think it's some kind of ice cream.

It wasn't until a twitter friend showed off her homemade yogurt did we jump in and buy a yogurt maker.

We make our yogurt with whole milk. We're big believers in our food being as close to natural as possible, and aren't sold on the idea that a fat-free, aspartame-sweetened snack laced with thickening and "mouthfeel" agents is really doing anything for our health.

So it's nice to take some whole, organic milk, add a bit of culture and make a nice, naturally thick yogurt. It tastes fresh, the bacteria is still very much alive and can work wonders in your gut, and that little extra bit of fat makes you actually feel full, so you don't need seconds.

If you pick up a yogurt maker, it'll include directions, but all you really need is a good thermos to hold the milk at the cozy temperature the bacteria loves. Just search Google or YouTube and you'll find people making it in all (some sketchy) sorts of ways.

Homemade Yogurt Recipe:

42 oz Organic Whole Milk
6 oz Plain Yogurt with live, active culture (or Yogurt Starter)

1. Heat your milk to 82°C/180°F (This supposedly helps it set thicker in the end).
2. Let your milk cool to luke warm (43°C/110°F)
3. Add some warm milk to the plain yogurt to thin it. Then add this mixture back into your milk.
4. Pour your mixture into your yogurt maker or a thermos wrapped in towels (you can rinse your thermos in hot water to pre-warm it).
5. Turn yogurt maker on or let the thermos sit in a warm place overnight (8 or so hours).
6. Put it in a jar or other container and let it set in the fridge.

So while getting out of the supermarket is pretty impossible when it comes to dairy, at least we have one less thing on our list.

Field Trip: Nickel Brook Brewery

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

I vaguely recall seeing Nickel Brook's rooftop grain bin as my morning train headed to the city, but it wasn't until our visit to Feast of Fields that I learned that the brewery, just fifteen minutes away from my house, was producing organic beer. Peter Romano was giving out samples of his organic lager, and after tasting it, I thought it'd be worth a visit.

We make a point of sourcing locally as much as we can, and that includes beer. And it's especially nice when you can purchase a beer right from the brewery, keeping as much money as possible in the brewery and out of the distribution chain.

When I arrived, John, Peter's brother, gave me a bit of a history lesson starting with their u-brew roots (they still run a u-brew and winemaking facility attached to the brewery). John showed me around and took me downstairs to show me their first vessels that they converted from dairy tanks.

All of the equipment they buy for the brewery is sourced as locally as possible. If things aren't available in the province, John looks elsewhere in Canada, and and is even willing to pay a premium to keep his suppliers close.

John packed up a couple six-pack cases with beers for me to take home and sample, and I was surprised to see that they were all different varieties. I asked if he was going to focus on a beer or even three beers in the future and he, said yes. They don't really have a signature beer, and John seemed to know that they need a bit of a cornerstone to justify the other brews.

I love beer, and love tasting interesting beer, but my critiques are usually one of the following nuanced utterances: Mmmm, It's OK, or Ewww. So I decided to invite some friends over to help judge.

Their lineup is up and down, and our little group of friends were generally at a consensus. The Draft was a good, standard, drinkable choice. The Organic Lager which I had already sampled is tasty. And a flavourful private-label brew they do for the Pepperwood Café is really nice. None of us would normally choose a flavoured beer, so they were less popular choices, and the gluten-free was definitely interesting, however I would love to hear an opinion from someone who has some experience with other gluten-free brews.

With a little condensing, they could have a good, reliable base. I suggest starting with their organic lager. It's definitely a refreshing drink, and a good local choice.

Nickel Brook
864 Drury Lane
Burlington, Ontario
(905) 681-2739 (BREW)